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The first thing to note about his book is that it belongs firmly within the context of Film studies / Popular Culture. It is not about the unconscious meanings of pornography-which would place it in a clinical setting. Nor is it a about the lives of those involved in pornography-which would place it in the context of either sociology or, possibly, psychology. It is a series of essays about different aspects of pornographic films--or, more accurately, pornography in film. (And is there a difference, one wonders?) Thus there is little discussion about moral aspects of pornography in film- although this is touched on. Nor is there any discussion about aspects of exploitation -- who is exploiting whom in the porn industry? (In Robert Stoller's book "Porn: Myths For The Twentieth Century. [Yale University Press, 1991])" the porn makers and stars are clear that they are the exploiters -- not the exploited.) For me these were omissions that I would have liked to have seen in this series of essays. It would have put pornography in film into some kind of context.
What does appear in the book are thirteen essays by writers involved in teaching film/ media/ cultural studies mainly in America. The essays are wide ranging. In his introduction Peter Lehman writes about "A Dirty Little Secret--Why Teach and Study Pornography?" His answer is that "... pornography can be complex, meaningful, and pleasurable and that it should be studied to enhance our understanding of sexuality and culture and not to fuel hysteria". (P.20) Essays then look at topics such as "Pornography: What Men See When They Watch" by Marty Klein, a sex therapist who argues that "... in pornography, men are able to consume the scarce commodity of female eroticism in ways that they aren't supposed to consume it in their nonporn daily life." He continues "While viewing porn, men can consume beauty in a direct, enthusiastic fashion and shamelessly acknowledge their interest as blatantly sexual" (P.252)
Laura Kiplins, an American professor of Radio and T.V. Film, suggests in her essay "How To Look at Pornography" that "... pornography is revealing... It exposes culture to itself. Pornography is the royal road to the cultural psyche... so the question is, if you put it on the couch and let it free associate, what is it really saying? What are the inner tensions and unconscious conflicts that propel its narrative?" (P.119) And one of the things that pornography's unconscious associating might reveal, she suggests, is that "Pornography's favorite terrain is the spot where the individual psyche collides with the historical process of molding social subjects." (P.122) Thus for Kiplins, pornography functions as a kind of court jester, saying the unsayable and being allowed to get away with this because of its distinctive role in the social court.
Linda Williams, the former director of the film studies program at University of California-Berkley, writes about "Generic Pleasures: Number and Narrative" where she draws some fascinating parallels between "necessary" set pieces in a pornographic film and their counterpart in a mainstream musical. So she writes "Masturbation, for example, can be seen as a solo song or dance of self love and enjoyment-a la the 'Singin' in the Rain' number in the musical of that name; straight sex is like a classic heterosexual duet- as in 'You were meant for Me', also from 'Singin' in the Rain'- with oral sex as a variation of this same theme..." Suddenly Mary Poppins seems much less innocent! What really went on between Julie Andrews and Dick Van-Dike? The duet 'It's a lovely holiday with Mary' now seems fraught with new and previously unconsidered possibilities! (It is too easy to mock Williams' point. When I thought more seriously about her essay her argument does make sense. In almost any porn film one can guarantee and predict a set menu of sequences to do parallel mainstream musicals.)
A feminist viewpoint is eloquently expressed in "Crackers and Whackers: The White Trashing of Porn" by Constance Penley who notes the bawdy humor to be found in pornographic films- a kind of adult pantomime but with sex as the central figure rather than the more conventional figures of panto. In my notes on this chapter I have commented that this essay suggest that "porn undermines the phallus and shows men getting their comeuppance" Penley puts her point thus "Given the enormous success of the feminist antiporn movement- and their strange bed fellows, the religious right-in shaping the current prevailing idea of porn as nothing but the degradation of women... it may be difficult to recognize that the tone of pornography ... is closer to Hee Haw than Nazi death camp fantasies." (P.103) To further illustrate her point she writes later in the same paper about the film "John Wayne Bobbitt, Uncut" --a porn film made out of the famous incident of Bobbitt having his penis cut off by his wife. "What's the moral of (this film)...for men? If you don't learn better sexual technique and start being more sensitive to your partner's needs, you're going to get yours cut off too, and, what's more, you'd deserve it!" (I can think of other "moral s" from this film. It can also be seen as representing the fear of the castrating, devouring mother who demands utter obedience from her little man-or else she will remove his 'little man' from him and literally as well as metaphorically, make it her own possession. But Penley is not writing from an explicitly analytic viewpoint and wants to make other points about the nature of pornography.)
There are other essays looking at filmic pornography form different perspectives. Henry Jenkins writes about Male-Male desire in Penthouse letters; Jose B. Capino writes about reading Asian pornography in his amusingly titled piece "Asian College Girls and Oriental Men with Bamboo Poles"; Daniel Bernadi writes about racism in pornography in his essay "Interracial Joysticks: Pornography's web of Racist Attractions".
Yet for all the fascinating papers I was till left with a sense of unease about this idea of pornography as no more or les than another cultural artifact. I saw Andrew Niccol's film "Lord of War" in which Nicolas Cage plays a gunrunner. Cage eulogizes about the beauty of various weapons; their accuracy; their fire power; their handling abilities but without ever quite mentioning that their sole aim is to kill people. After reading these essays I was left with a feeling that pornography is a bit like Cage's guns. That some films are beautiful is unarguable; that some films can make important moral points is also true. But what about the shadow side of pornography? Is it not exploitative of both its audience and its participants? What points does it make about the body when the bodies in question are only objects with no apparent feelings? And whilst we can study filmic pornography as a cultural artifact and liken it to "Singin in the Rain", what do we make of internet pornography where everything and anything seems to be available?
With that entirely personal proviso stated, I enjoyed this series of essays. It helped me to think about pornography in ways that I had not done previously and to consider its function in new ways. As a contribution to media studies /popular culture, this book has a good deal of interesting things to say. But it needs to be read with other essays looking at other ways in which pornography is used and the message it gives out. To continue Linda Kiplins' metaphor, I think that pornography would benefit from some more time on the couch. There are still areas of itself to which it remains unconscious-and which might do well to be brought into consciousness!
© 2008 Terry Burridge
Terry Burridge is a Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at Buckinghamshire New University. He has spent most of his professional life as a psychiatric nurse and now spends considerable time and energy trying to inspire future psychiatric nurses to be the best kinds of nurses that they can be! He is very much influenced by psychoanalytic thinking and sees analytic theory as offering a valuable critique to many other areas of human activity. He can be contacted at [email protected]
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